Tokyo 4: When the world cracks

On Friday March 11 at 2.46pm there was an earthquake off the north-eastern coast of the island of Honshu. In the worst affected areas, it was a 7 on the Shindo magnitude scale, but a Shindo upper 5 in Tokyo. It shook almost all of Japan.

I wrote about the earthquake and the rest of Friday here. I wrote that because I wanted everyone in New Zealand to know I was ok, that Tokyo was ok, because no one seemed to believe it. Probably because all the images being shown on TV were of utter devastation.

The first thing I did after the quake (2.51pm, to be exact) was tweet that it had happened. I think I did this because it’s what lots of people in Christchurch seemed to do after the big one there. It serves a dual purpose – a “shit, something big just happened” and “but I’m ok”.


I made a typo – it should have been Shinjuku, not Shinjulu. At the time, I noticed that I’d typed it wrong and I could have fixed it, but I just wanted to post the tweet as quickly as possible and go anywhere else.

I emailed my parents to let them know there’d been a quake and that I was ok. Hilariously, my mum hadn’t been watching TV that evening and so was unaware of what had happened. She thought I was talking about Wednesday’s foreshock, so she replied saying she already knew about it, knew there’d been no fatalities, and so she didn’t think I’d been hurt. Lol.

In the hours after the quake, I’d look at my twitter feed and notice people in New Zealand freaking out in my direction. No one was reading my tweets. Everyone thought I was in mortal danger. It was as if the quake-damanged and tsunami-ravaged regions hundreds of kilometres north of Tokyo were so powerfully awful that surely it all must have affected me too.


To put it into perspective, while the earthquake in Tokyo was really unpleasant, willingly getting my corneas sliced with a razor blade when I had LASIK surgery on my eyes was more unpleasant. Slightly less unpleasant is Air New Zealand’s comedy safety-briefing videos.

I think I’m lucky that I didn’t have the opportunity to watch the live broadcast of the tsunami devastation. It sounds like some of that live footage – the sort that is never broadcast again because it’s too horrible – would have been genuinely traumatic to watch.

The New Zealand freak-out reaction was probably influenced by the Christchurch earthquake, which had only happened two weeks prior. But I felt a bit like a tourist in Wellington who having to explain to concerned friends and family overseas that she hadn’t been affected by the Christchurch earthquake and wasn’t going to leave New Zealand early.

And, you know what? New Zealand television news likes drama. It goes crazy with giant on-screen graphics, flowery language, picking up on the very worst and the desperate need for a “story”. But sometimes things happen that don’t tell a story.

After the quake

Leaving Shinjuku Station, a group of people stood standing around watching a public television showing live news. It reminded me of a very similar scene from just a couple of weeks earlier – shoppers at Moore Wilson’s supermarket in Wellington standing around watching live news coverage of Christchurch.

I think Christchurch is one of the reasons that the Japan earthquake didn’t come as a total surprise to me. Earthquakes were on my mind, there had been daily minor earthquakes in Tokyo since I arrived, and indeed the very first webpage I bookmarked on my rented iPhone was the very useful Japan Meteorological Agency’s earthquake information site. I was almost expecting a sizeable earthquake, just not that big.

Tokyo was ok. It had suffered only very minor damage in the earthquake (mainly cracking from liquefaction on reclaimed land), there was no tsunami, no nuclear troubles and no humanitarian problems.

Tokyo just felt toned down, like it had lost a bit of joie de vivre, like Wellington did the day after the Christchurch earthquake. It’s that really human reaction to a horrible situation.

Maybe it’s because Japanese are so aware of and prepared for earthquakes. There are frequent drills and training. Minor earthquakes are plentiful, so no one freaks out when there’s a little rumble.

After the earthquake in Tokyo, none of the locals seemed panicked. It was like, “Ok, the trains are down, I can’t walk home, so I’ll have to find somewhere to sleep tonight.”

So because no one in Tokyo seemed to be freaking out, I didn’t occur to me to freak out either. I was weird looking at Facebook and Twitter and seeing people ask “When are you coming home?!”, when it hadn’t even occured to me to change my flights. And I didn’t even feel like I was away from home. Home was where I wanted to be and that was Tokyo.

The news

5 thoughts on “Tokyo 4: When the world cracks”

  1. I think for me the last bit about not rushing to leave or consider leaving because Tokyo was home is part of why I have a gut negative reaction towards Tokyo expats who fled the country. It feels like they rushed to abandon their home when things turned bad.

    When you did leave it didn’t feel to me like an act of abandonment on your part, but merely practicality. Travel and accommodation to the south would have been considerably more difficult, so it just made sense. But for many Tokyo residents who fled the country I feel as though it had little to do with practicalities and was much more an act of abandonment amidst hard times.

    1. When I was in Melbourne on 9/11, I remember quite specifically wanting to go back to New Zealand. But I didn’t get that feeling in Tokyo, even though it was something that had directly affected me.

      I can get that some expats might want to return to their home countries to be with their families (or whoever), but it does feel like a bit of a panic reaction to suddenly skip town to be somewhere more pleasant and less hard.

  2. My first tweet right after the big one: “fucking hell. 6+”.!/sobri/status/46086665009242113

    Then some pictures of a cracked wall.!/sobri/status/46094968464474113!/sobri/status/46095789763723264

    I think 6+ was my guess at the shindo intensity up north, where I assumed the epicentre was – same location as the previous couple of days. I explained to my parents the guessed location and how, considering what we felt in Tokyo, things would be likely very bad up north – the news on TV would be grim.

    Shortly after I got the JMA page to load and saw it was a shindo 7. I remember seeing that and it sinking in that this was a major event, with likely many dead. I hadn’t yet heard about the tsunamis.

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